PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – The early-morning crowd of autograph seekers leaning against the locked gate to the players’ parking lot recognize him immediately and start screaming his name.
“Fernando, Fernando,” they yell. “F-Mart, F-Mart, please,” they plead.
Fernando Martinez is 19 years old and has never set foot inside Shea Stadium as an active player.
The highest-rated Mets prospect, the chip the franchise would not surrender for Johan Santana, smiles, gives a big-league wave to those who seek his signature as an investment, and hustles into the clubhouse to join the real Mets.
Soon enough, the outfielder will be one of them, he vowed, and said it will be by the end of the summer.
“You’ll see me there this year,” he says in a quiet voice; one of confidence but not braggadocio.
By all accounts, Martinez is a five-tool player – he hits, hits with power, runs, throws and plays defense – but he also has a quiet demeanor, strong work ethic and more than a touch of modesty.
“I see a guy who has all the tools to be a great player,” David Wright said. “He really wants to learn. He comes in and talks to the veterans. He’s soaking it all in.
“He knows he’s good, but he’s not brash. He doesn’t have that cockiness or top-prospect mentality that a lot of guys get.”
Martinez received a $1.4 million signing bonus at age 16, and his only interest since has been getting better personally and professionally.
He’s one of the first to arrive at camp, he listens intently to the advice from the veterans, and he took advantage of his time at Double-A Binghamton to learn English at SUNY-Binghamton.
“There are a lot of great players here, and I’m fortunate to be around them,” Martinez said. “If they are going to talk with me, I’m going to listen.”
Carlos Beltran talks hitting with him. So does Pedro Martinez, but from a pitcher’s perspective.
Fernando Martinez calls both his heroes.
“He’s very smart,” Pedro Martinez said. “He listens to you. He wants to learn. I can see the pitching sequences of other pitchers and will tell him why they are pitching him that way.
“He has unlimited talent. When you see him, all you want to do is see him more.”
In 551 minor-league at-bats, Martinez, a left-handed hitter, has hit .276 with 14 homers and 60 RBI.
It was enough for the Minnesota Twins to push hard for him to be included in the Santana deal. It was never going to happen.
“We didn’t have to think that much about it,” assistant general manager Tony Bernazard said. “His hitting is so advanced. He’s able to do things at his age that other people can’t do.”
At home in the Dominican Republic this winter, Martinez heard the rumors, and it didn’t help that well-meaning friends ran up the minutes on his cell phone.
“I thought I might be traded,” said Martinez, who, after going hitless in one-bat in yesterday’s 4-3 loss to Boston, is hitting .300 this spring.
“I didn’t want to go, and I’m really glad I’m still here.”
General manager Omar Minaya didn’t hide the trade talks from Martinez; he also didn’t hide his intent to keep him from the Twins.
“We didn’t want to trade him,” Minaya said. “He has a tremendous upside.”
Martinez won’t talk about his ceiling. He mentioned wanting to hit .300 and hit 20 homers, but Baseball America projects him for more power.
“It’s hard to predict power for somebody at that age,” Carlos Delgado said. “He has a lot of tools, but he’s in that developmental stage.”
Martinez wants to get stronger.
“He works very hard,” Beltran said. “You always see him in the weight room. He has a great attitude and work habits.”
As he matures physically, he should hit with power because of his plate presence. The Mets like his patience and plate coverage. He’s able to turn on a pitch and pull it, but also hit the ball on a line to the opposite field.
The caveat, of course, is injuries, and the belief is the broken bone in his right hand that limited him to 60 games last year won’t prohibit his power development. The previous year he played in only 76 games because of a thumb injury.
“I want to stay healthy,” Martinez said. “I need to play a complete year.”
If so, Bernazard said Martinez’s projection of seeing Shea Stadium this year is realistic.
From there, who knows how high?
Beltran’s eyes sparkled when he spoke of Martinez. It was as if he were talking about a son.
“He has this sense that, ‘I will improve,’ ” Beltran said. “He’s not afraid. He’s not intimidated. If he takes care of himself, I believe he can do whatever he wants in this game.”
And for the Mets, the important thing is he’ll be doing it for them and not the Twins.